Do You Need a Personal Beacon?

On November 17, 2003 at 10:45 in the morning, a Personal Beacon was activated in the State of New York in the Adirondack Mountains.  The Air Force Rescue Coordination Center (ARFCC) at Langley AFB in Virginia intercepted the signal from the Search and Rescue Satellite Aid Tracking System (SARSAT).  The SARSAT is operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA).  The Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) was activated by Carl Skalak, from Cleveland, Ohio.  He was suffering the effects of hypothermia. The PLB saved his life.  This was the first rescue from a personal beacon in the United States.

More recently a man from Denver, Colorado had rented a PLB while backpacking in the Grand Canyon.  On October 1, 2010, he activated the device.  The signal was picked up by the AFRCC located at Tyndall AFB in Florida.  Within just a few minutes, the rescue effort had begun.    The man was rescued and treated for symptoms of dehydration.


Before July 2003, there was not a national agency or system place to handle such emergencies.  For many years, the Coast Guard was in charge of water rescues and there was a Marine equivalent to the PLB called an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB).  The aviation community has had Emergency Locator Devices (ELTs) for decades.  Until July 2003, individual states had to handle emergency situations on land.

Since its inception, the system has saved countless lives.

What is a PLB? (Is it like a PB&J)

A Personal Locator Beacon is a small portable device that, when activated, transmits an emergency distress signal to orbiting satellites.   The satellites relay the distress call to search and rescue networks anywhere in the world.

They are extremely well built and can take a lot of abuse.  They are also waterproof and contain a long lasting lithium battery.  Some models are Global Positioning System (GPS) compatible and the coordinates can be sent along, hastening the system’s ability to locate you.  With a unit that does not have GPS, the satellites use a Doppler Shift method to calculate your position.

Every Personal Locator has a Unique Identifying Number (UIN) that is registered with NOAA when purchased.  The UIN is a 15 digit number.  The number along with your personal data is entered into the NOAA database.  When activated, the PLB sends the UIN to the SARSAT satellites.

What Kinds of PLB:

There are two basic different models of PLB: those with GPS and those without.  Without going into too much detail, each PLB broadcasts at two different frequencies.  One is for the satellites and the other is for the ground search and rescue teams.

  • Without GPS: The locator without the GPS will get the search and rescue teams to within 2 miles of your location.  In addition to this, it can take up to 45 minutes for your signal and location to be alerted.
  • With a GPS: This unit can get the search and rescue teams to within 100 meters of your position.  Another great benefit is that they are alerted within 5 minutes.

Other Items:

  • Whether you carry a PLB or not, it is still a good idea to carry signaling devices such as; a whistle, signal light or mirror.  These devices can help when give your location when the search parties get close.
  • There is no annual fee or subscription for a PLB.
  • The batteries for a PLB will last for approximately 24 hours.  This time can be decreased by colder weather.
  • There is another device called a SPOT satellite messenger. These are similar to a PLB, but their signal is not as strong and there is an annual subscription fee. This device could be a good alternative (because of the price) for the more casual hiker.

A note of warning: A personal beacon is not a toy, nor is pressing it to be taken lightly.  The PLB should only be used in dire emergencies when all other means of escape from the situation have been tried.  Also keep in mind that rescues can come with a hefty price.

There is no doubt that having a PLB can help anyone that find themselves in an emergency situation.  If you hike, backpack, mountain climb or partake in any other outdoor back country activity on a regular basis, it would benefit you to take a look at a personal beacon.  It could save your life.

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